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The 20 essential maps you need to understand Brittany

The Local France
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The 20 essential maps you need to understand Brittany
Photo: Brittany/Deposit Photos

A land of mysticism, rugged natural beauty and an identity that’s different from the rest of France - these 20 maps will give you a real understanding of the beautiful region of Brittany.


Little Britain?

Brittany or Bretagne (Breizh and Bertaèyn in Breton and Gallo) is a region in the northwest of France with a distinct cultural identity.

It gets its name from the Latin Britannia, as modern-day Brittany was once part of the Roman province of Britain. There are also claims that Brittany was referred to as Lesser or Little Britain (Britannia Inferior) but this also is said to have been the case for northern England and Wales.

What is clear is that the Romans called Brittany Armorica, and after the fall of their empire Britons from what is now the UK crossed the channel and populated northwest France. So historically Brittany and Great Britain share at the very least linguistic and genetic roots (as well as the rainy weather).

Source: Wikicommons/GwenofGwened

It used to be a Duchy (a what?)

After expelling the Vikings, Brittany became an independent kingdom in the early Middle Ages and then a duchy- a type of medieval feudal state ruled by an all-powerful duke - from 939 up until 1547.

The Duché de Bretagne covered a greater area of northwest France than present-day Brittany and was often at loggerheads with the Normandy Duchy, then it was invaded by Henry II of England in the mid-12th century (who became Count of Nantes) and eventually succumbed to the French crown after centuries of pressure.


Celtic symbolism

Brittany’s flag is the Gwenn-ha-du (meaning white and black in Breton).

Along with the Corsican flag it stands out from the other coats of arms across l’Héxagone’s regions and flag fanatics may have noticed it shares the colours of Cornwall’s Saint Piran's flag (cultural links between both places are well recorded).

French authorities used to see the Gwenn-ha-du as a separatist symbol, but attitudes have since changed and it’s now accepted as a symbol of Breton identity.

Source: Deposit Photos

Western Brittany was and is more traditionally Breton

A quick look at the following map shows the stark difference in place names between west and east Brittany.

To the west, there’s an abundance of Breton town names ending with “ac” (Neulliac, Carnac, Scrignac) as opposed to the more French “é” ending in the east of Brittany, with the imaginary Loth line splitting the two sides, named after the Celtic linguist who noticed the divide, Joseph Loth.

Source: BCD

The Breton language is dying out but lives on in the west

Most Breton speakers are now in their seventies and estimates point to a drop in 10,000 speakers annually. In 2011, UNESCO put the total number of speakers at 250,000. That’s in stark contrast to at the start of the 20th century, when two million spoke Breton.

As the following maps illustrate, those who still use this Celtic language (first brought over by Britons from the British Isles in the early Middle Ages) are concentrated in the west, with different areas using different dialects.

Gallo, another ancient language of Brittany, is derived from French.

Source: pmx/wikicommons

Coastal quaintness galore

Brittany’s rugged coastline together with its wonderfully preserved medieval towns and dense forests make it a great destination for history buffs and lovers of the great outdoors.

This old tourist postcard showcases the sheer number of activities and days out that are available in Bretagne, from visiting the coastal treasure town of Saint Malo to the dramatic cliffs of Finistère and the megalithic Carnac stones.

There’s also the amazing Breton cuisine, which we’ll cover further down.

Very clean bathing waters in the south of Brittany

The water at 97 percent of beaches in Brittany in 2016 was of good enough quality for swimming, with some coastline in the northwest and north scoring low and most of the southern shoreline getting an excellent rating. 

Take a closer look here


It rains the most in the west

The fact that the Breton peninsula sticks out into the ocean - a northerly stone’s throw away from “grey” Britain – can make it fairly wet and windy.

In fact, you can expect rain even during the warmer summer months. Bretagne’s average total rainfall in 2017 was 749mm (7th overall), better than in next door Normandy (819mm, 4th in the rain tables) or than in easterly Franche-Comté (955mm, 1st in France for rainfall).

West Brittany gets the highest rainfall in the region, centred largely around the city of Quimper and the Armorique National Park.  


Breton geography in a nutshell

With the granite slopes and dense forests of the Armorican massif in the middle of its territory and 1,700km of coastline defining most of its borders, Brittany is a topographic land of contrasts.

The region also encompasses 800 offshore isles and small islands that are considered to be protected areas, including Ouessant, Sein, Hoëdic and Houat.

Brittany’s coastline combines grassy dunes and sandy beaches with jagged cliffs, the highest being the Crozon Peninsula (100m). The highest peak inland is part of the Monts d’Arrée, which have a summit of 384 metres.

Source: Topographic Maps 

Brittany’s big cities

There were 3.27 million people in Brittany according to the 2014 census.

The largest cities in the region are Rennes (206,00 residents), Brest (142,097), Quimper, 63,929, Lorient, 58,148, Vannes, 52,983, Saint-Malo, 48,211, and Saint-Brieuc, 45,879.

Then there’s Nantes, the sixth biggest city in France and one that belongs historically and culturally to Brittany but under modern administrative changes came to fall under, rather controversially, next door Pays de la Loire.

The same goes for the Loire-Atlantique department in which Nantes lies, no longer considered part of Brittany alongside the official Breton departments of Finistère in the west, Côtes d'Armor in the north, Morbihan in the south, and Ille et Vilaine in the east.

Source: actualitix


Very few foreigners

This map shows how Brittany has one of the smallest number of étrangers in l’Héxagone, with only 2.3 percent of the region’s population not French.

However, a 2016 study by The Local found that Rennes was the best city for foreigners in France to live in thanks to great quality of life and welcoming nature.


Source: La Web Pedagogique

Plenty of airports and flights

There are direct flights from the UK to airports in Brittany such as Dinard, Brest, Lorient, Quimper, Nantes and Rennes.

From Ireland you can fly direct to Nantes and Rennes.

If you’re flying to Brittany from somewhere else, look for a connecting flight rather than driving from a Paris airport, as this will add anything from three to five and a half hours to your trip, depending on what part of Bretagne you’re going to.

Source: Culture Bretagne

No actual motorways in Brittany

There’s an urban myth that claims there are no road tolls in Brittany, with some people even saying it’s down to a 16th century decree by duchess Anne de Bretagne to guarantee free travel in the region.

This is unfortunately false. What is true and rather bizarre at that is that there are no official motorways running through Brittany, but rather four-lane national roads where the speed limit is 110km/h.

A 60km section of the A84 motorway running from Normandy to Rennes is the only exception. And in this particular case, it’s true that there aren’t any road tolls!

Source: ViaMichelin

The train network is getting a revamp

Four-year renovation works on Brittany’s rail network are set to end this year including the arrival of the high-speed line between Le Mans and Rennes.

Source: Ouest-France

Lots in store for hikers and cyclists

Just like its neighbour Normandy, Brittany has some outstanding green trails for locals and visitors to enjoy. In total, hikers and cyclists can enjoy 1,700 km of dedicated itineraries, for beginners and professionals.

This website contains all the information you need to plan the perfect rambling holiday in Bretagne.

Source: Bretagne Rando 

Natural parks with a coastal connection

Brittany has two official natural parks - Armorique and Gulf of Morbihan- as well as the Marin d’Iroise, the first marine park established off French shores.

All three of Bretagne’s parcs naturels have a close connection to the sea and the flora and fauna that inhabits this coastal environment. Expect beautiful panoramas, stunning cliffs and memorable hiking throughout. Plan your trip here.  

The Natural Park of Brière is just over the border in the department of Loire-Atlantique in the Pays-de-la-Loire region.

Source: Parcs Naturels Regionaux

France’s first gastro map

This gastronomic map, dating back to 1929, is believed to be one of the first of its kind in France. The Parisian chef who created it focused on the myriad dishes and delicatessen available in Brittany, even back then.

Although perhaps a bit outdated by now, this amazing find unveiled in 2017 by the National Library of France (BNF) includes staple Breton foods such as crèpes, sardines, oysters and other seafood, all washed down with a glass of Breton cider.

Source: BNF Gallica

Food is serious business in Brittany

Breton cider gets most of the attention from outsiders but there are numerous other food products from the region that can only be made by producers with a permit, these include the Roscoff onion, black wheat flour, paté and poultry.

Source: AOC 

Breton beers are making a name for themselves

The craft beer industry is taking off in Brittany. This map shows the 22 breweries that took part in the 2015 Breton Beer Awards, the first event of its kind in the region.

It takes place around the end of May each year and they often recruit regular beer drinkers rather than professionals to be part of the jury. If you can’t wait to try the best Breton beers at the event, here is the list of the latest winners.  

Source: Le Télégramme

They’ve got a bit of a sweet tooth

If you’re in Brittany and want a break from nutella crèpes, there are plenty of other biscuits and cakes available that will supply the desired sugar rush.

Head to your closest Breton patisserie for a few Galletes Bretonnes, a Craquelin de St Malo or a Quatre-quarts cake. Bretons may not be known for their cheese as much as their Camembert-creating Norman counterparts, but they sure know how to bake.

Source: l'


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